Babs Gons aan Roger Robinson: 'In these dark and challenging times, I do strongly believe in poetry'

In ILFU Corresponding Stories vragen we schrijvers en denkers van over de hele wereld om elkaar te schrijven over de grote thema’s van onze tijd. Onze penvrienden van maart en april zijn de Britse dichter Roger Robinson en onze Dichter des Vaderlands Babs Gons. In zijn vorige brief schreef Roger over poëzie als creatief burgerschap, vandaag lees je het antwoord van Babs.


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Van: Babs Gons
Aan: Roger Robinson
Datum: 28 March 2024
Onderwerp: RE: Corresponding Stories

Dear Roger,

It’s wonderful to hear from you and read about the things taking up your time and attention.

I do not have a garden but I have a small balcony looking down on one. Almost every day, a woodpecker lands in the white birch in front of my window. Whenever I hear his cuk-cuk-cuk, whatever I’m doing, the moment softens. It makes me feel special, I mean, he could have gone to every tree in the whole world, but he chose the birch behind my house. (The stories we tell ourselves.)

Once this hectic life of mine slows down, I want to watch birds for days and days on end. Have you heard about the two young black men who started a birdwatching collective for people of colour in the UK? Flock Together, they are called. They describe themselves as a ‘living, breathing homage to nature’s vital role as a space to recharge, restore and inspire’. They take groups of people of colour on birdwatching walks. It looks like so much fun. It feels like they are decolonising bird watching and I’m so here for it.

When I was younger, I read everything I could find of my favourite writers. But then Alice Walker started talking about gardens, and then Jamaica Kincaid published a book about gardening and I didn’t understand it. Gardening? Weren’t they warriors? Where was their activism? What about civil rights? What about womanism? What had plants got to do with it? But I began to understand how Walker used the garden as a metaphor for creating an own place. And then I read that Kincaid wrote about the naming of plants, as a way of colonialism. She pointed out that the renaming of plants by the early botanists was a colonial practice, colonial violence, she called it, and it raised questions of who nature belongs to. By renaming plants, they claimed them. The same happened of course with territories. I recently found out that certain birds were named after their white ‘discoverers’. McCown’s longspur, for example, is a grassland bird that was named after Confederate general John Porter McCown. I think it was only last year that they changed its name to the thick-billed longspur. It was the first time the American Ornithological Association agreed to change a bird’s name because it was racially offensive. Same as the Bachman’s sparrow. Imagine, Bachman, an anti-abolitionist, giving his name to the freest being on earth.

It is maybe a far stretch but it made me think of what you said about creative citizenship, to debunk with creativity the outdated notions of citizenship, who it belongs to and who deserves it. Who named it and took possession of it. You could extend citizenship to nature. Taking nature back, isn’t that a deconstruction?

A while ago, I heard a conversation in which an indigenous person said: ‘…when we discovered Columbus’. Language. Perspective. Imagine general John Porter McCown ‘discovering’ this grassland bird that had been around for ages, that is observing him from an age-old tree, watching him violating the land and enslaved people, only to be given this man’s name. It’s crazy.

Honestly, there are many moments that I’m plagued by the thought that as long as my poem is not a food package, as long as it’s not a lifebuoy, it’s totally useless.

But let me stop talking about birds because I can easily write pages and pages about our feathered friends. Lately I find myself continuously talking about birds, in conversations with friends, in interviews and with colleague artists backstage. Maybe it’s because I spend so much time alone writing at my kitchen table, with only the birds on my balcony as my companions.

Your first novel, how is that Roger? I wonder how this story found you. I relate to what you are saying, about finding ways to deal with it, the heaviness of history, the profound impact black people's history still holds on them. Today is International Day against Racism and recent incidents have been weighing heavy on me, it never gets easier. We need breaks, we need relief, concepts, love, kindheartedness, laughter and maybe bird walks to lighten the burden.

‘What if the book of poems isn’t the thing in itself’, I danced a little when I read those words. If I learnt anything in these last years, since my books have been published, is that the book is a portal. It’s a door. I keep stepping into people’s houses, hearts, realms, universes, through the book. It’s a seat, a table, sometimes a handshake, an invitation. You know what keeps happening to me Roger, people asking me for advice after hearing my poems, About love, about broken hearts, books, parenting, about discrimination. And all that because of my poems, my book of poems. I heard you say that poems are like empathy machines. I agree, and want to add, sometimes poets are like advisers.

Honestly, there are many moments that I’m plagued by the thought that as long as my poem is not a food package, as long as it’s not a lifebuoy, it’s totally useless. But in these dark and challenging times, I do strongly believe in poetry and in poets. Not to solve the problems we are facing, but to remind us of our shared humanity. To spark our imagination, to keep hope alive and keep looking for beauty.

And you talked about the book making changes possible, about the book being much more.

When I was visiting a festival in Rio de Janeiro, the organisation distributed books in several favelas. In Brazil, as in a lot of places, a book is a product of luxury. Slam poetry is very popular, with people coming together to perform in parks and in squares. And they, the people, are the books, they are the stories, they tell us what we don’t get to read. For many, it’s their only platform, the only place to be heard. And some of them are now self-publishing. They’ve become important sources, empowering themselves and younger generations. They take their work into schools, they stand on the front rows of rallies. Through their art and imagination, they become architects of change.

The story of your mother, I overstand so well. There is a lot to learn from her approach. If only we could all pay more attention to each other’s ways of living, of loving, of being and believing. The different ways of hospitality. Our rituals.

Thank you for sharing the story, it feels a little like I know your mother since I read your book The Suitcase. It’s beautiful how you write about her. Through such loving eyes.

It’s almost too good to be true Roger, just as I’m finishing this letter to you, three little pigeons landed on my doorstep. Time for me to take a break.

I’m looking forward to hear from you again,